More ideological bias: the National Science Foundation gives grants for people to document what the NSF already claims to know

September 25, 2022 • 11:15 am

You can argue about whether the purview of the National Science Foundation (NSF) should include investigating whether American science and science education are “systemically racist” in addition to doing what the NSF normally does—funding science itself.  I won’t argue that, since I think that the NSF does fund sociology, and I suppose science is as good a field for sociological investigation as any other.

But I will argue—and what I discuss hre—is that the NSF isn’t calling for investigations of whether systemic racism is an important impediment to education and professional advancement in STEM. No, the NSF assumes that this is true, and then throws money at investigators to figure out how to remedy a problem that hasn’t yet been demonstrated.

In other words, the NSF claims to already know that not only is systemic racism real and prevalent in STEM, but is also the overweening cause of the inequities in representation.

This is question-begging in the authentic sense—assuming what you want to demonstrate. And I take “systemic racism in STEM” to mean the presence of ingrained features in STEM that cause discrimination against people (it could be any group, but they’re talking about racial discrimination). “Systemic racism” does not mean that “STEM has bigots”—all fields, do, of course—but rather that education in science, math, engineering, and technology have built-in features that discriminate against minorities and women. And that’s why those groups are underrepresented in STEM studies and among STEM academics.

Many NSF-funded scientists were sent a link to a new program solicitation for “racial equity in STEM” education, which has a pot of money between $15 million and $25 million. The goal is to show how systemic racism impedes STEM education and then how to overcome these impediments. The program assumes there’s systemic racism in science and science education, something that many scientists would contest, especially in view of the eagerness of many science departments to recruit minority students and faculty, sometimes giving them advantages over non-minorities. (Not long ago the National Institutes of Health started a program that gave minorities preferential access to grant money, but then quickly dismantled it when I think they realized it was illegal.)

Before I show you this question-begging, let me add that the goal—to give historically disadvantaged minorities a leg up in education—is admirable. But before you do that, you have to figure out exactly how the disadvantages act to reduce STEM participation. And, as I note just below, “systemic racism” is one of just several potential causes for underachievement.  Especially for a science organization, you cannot assume that systemic racism is THE cause. That has to be demonstrated, not assumed. But the NSF assumes and doesn’t demonstrate.

At any rate, here’s the proposal, sent by a colleague who was surprised that an organization that gives money for scientific research assumes from the outset that “systemic racism” is ingrained in STEM, so that there is no need to

a. demonstrate that this is true using an explicit definition of “systemic racism”, and

b. further demonstrate that systemic racism is the cause for inequities of representation of minorities in STEM.  As you know, there are other possible reasons, including “pipeline problems” based on unequal opportunities that start at birth and lead to educational deficits, as well as differences in career preference of different groups.

Click on the screenshot to see the program announcement.

I’ve taken some excerpts. Here is the “Important information” at the beginning of the announcement. I’ve highlighted “systemic racism throughout” so you can see how it’s assumed. Note that three of the four requirements assume systemic racism exists and is important in cause unequal representation.

I presume that “led by or in authentic partnership” means that proposals should have principal investigators that are minorities or at least collaborators. While you can’t investigate racism without studying minorities, this may be code for saying “we will favor proposals by minority Principal Investigators.” But they can’t say that outright because it’s illegal, just as it was with the NIH.

The rationale for the study, which is fine. Every American should have an equal opportunity from birth to study science and become a scientist. That doesn’t assure equity, of course, but it does assure equal opportunity.

The NSF Strategic Plan focuses on ensuring that U.S. research is an inclusive enterprise that benefits from the talent of all sectors of American society – a research enterprise that incorporates the rich demographic and geographic diversity of the nation. The strategic plan recognizes that the more people who engage in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research and the more diverse their backgrounds, the richer the range of questions asked. The result is a greater breadth of discovery and more creative solutions

The assumption that inequities are due to systemic racism:



There will be a total of 15-35 awards given, each award can be for up to five years, and you can ask for up to $5 million.

Note the big problem: they explicitly and repeatedly ascribe inequities (unequal representation of racial groups in proportion to their presence in the American population) to systemic racism. This is an assumption, not a fact.  And in truth, you cannot even begin such projects without a demonstration of what role ingrained features—and exactly which ingrained features—of STEM impede education in the sciences. Perhaps the NSF should use that $15-$25 to investigate the contribution of various factors to inequities. But that, of course, is taboo, because progressive doctrine already tells us the answer without any need for empirical investigation. It’s revelation, Jake! Or at least ideology.

14 thoughts on “More ideological bias: the National Science Foundation gives grants for people to document what the NSF already claims to know

  1. “The assumption that inequities are due to systemic racism” is often called the “disparity fallacy”. It has been addressed by many fine writers, including (perhaps most persuasively of all) Thomas Sowell in Chapter Seven of his well-known Intellectuals and Society (2011).

  2. Especially for a science organization, you cannot assume that systemic racism is THE cause. That has to be demonstrated, not assumed.

    This overlooks the full brilliance of the Woke/Kendian “anti-racist” ideology. Anything that results in racially non-equal outcomes is necessarily “systemic racism”, simply because “systemic racism” is defined as anything that results in racially non-equal outcomes.

    1. If that were the case there might not be any problem here, since “anything that results in racially-unequal outcomes” would presumably include pipeline problems, career preferences, and other alternatives to “the presence of ingrained features in STEM that cause discrimination against people.” Instead, it’s more likely that these potential causes will be dismissed in favor of — whatever they’re going to tar the entire scientific field with.

      I just really hope it’s not going to involve the bigoted, colonialist, hegemonic dismissal of Other Ways of Knowing.

  3. The verbiage of the program (“all proposals should center the voices…”) gives the game away. It would be worth inquiring whether the NSF bureaucrats who devised the program and wrote the announcement have any background whatsoever in science, the arena of the second letter in NSF. The use of “center” as a verb, and the obsession with “voices”, are both diagnostic of the Grievance Studies hustle in academe. I wonder how many graduates of these mock academic fields (or of Ed schools, rich in similar verbiage) have made their way into the agencies and editorial offices that are nominally concerned with science.

    1. It seems that even small organisations feel the need to show how up to date and woke they are. The “College” that licenses and governs physicians in my small province consists of a Registrar and about a dozen clerical staff. Maybe a dozen senior physicians volunteer, in return for a stipend, to sit on disciplinary hearings. 2,300 doctors in the province pay ~$2k per year in annual fees. That gives the College $4.6m to play with each year. The annual fee used to be much smaller, but a special increase was charged to permit consultants to be hired to conduct a thorough investigation into whether there was systemic racism in the College that had to be rooted out. The witchfinders came and went, found nothing interesting and made the expected long list of recommendations about staff training, hiring a diversity officer and new requirements for licensure to ensure doctors also conformed to their views.
      Naturally, the license fee did not go back down after this voluntary, futile theatre of self-criticism. And since I’m retired I can say these things out loud: I would not have dared while I held a license, as contempt charges are a real thing for them, and when they investigate you, you have to pay the cost of the investigation along with whatever fine or suspension imposed.

  4. It seems significant that NSF had to remind applicants that “All proposals should have a knowledge generation component.” As if some folks might have forgotten to do that otherwise. In a grant proposal. To NSF.

  5. It will be interesting to see what kinds of studies are actually funded and if they, too, assume systemic racism a priori. NSF administrators may be aware that the guidelines are woke, but program directors may make better decisions when they actually decide what to fund. We’ll see. That said, it sure looks like they have adopted Kendi’s conception of racism.

  6. I interacted (grant review teams and Committee of Visitors) with a number of nsf people from the engineering and the math/physical science research directorates over the years (say 1990-2008ish) and it always struck me as strange that education was billeted with human resources and siloed away from the actual STEM content area research directorates. Has anyone else noticed this? Does it bother anyone?

  7. The pernicious effects of historical and structural racism sets up minorities to be concentrated in high crime areas, poorer schools, and an outlook that college let alone a life in STEM is like imagining to be on the moon. It requires deep pockets and an education background to make it in those fields.
    Meanwhile, it is well known that immigrants from Africa can do quite well since they enter the country from outside of that demographic. So a test of whether STEM is in itself a fountain of racism could be done by simply looking at how those immigrants succeed in the STEM fields.

    1. I think it’s rather more complex than that. To what extent are recent immigrants from Africa representative of their nations of origin as a whole? I’d imagine not very much — to have the resources to immigrate means one typically must already be part of the elite.

  8. We accept that racism and sexism were pernicious and left a residue of hurt and inequity. But, though racism and bias still exist, the world has changed. Below I quote from:

    Much objective research seems to demonstrate that commonly-held beliefs, such as discrimination against women and minorities in employment within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), hold much less truth these days than they once did. Discrimination was manifest and pernicious, but that was decades ago. Indeed, discrimination does occur today, but possibly as much in favor of women and minorities as against them.

    It is argued that racism against minorities exists in the sciences here in New Zealand (McAllister, 2021). McAllister goes on to assert that a stronger emphasis on mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and the colonial history of science in the curriculum is necessary to ensure that future generations of scientists are equipped with the knowledge and understanding that scientific frameworks of thinking exist beyond the discipline of colonial science. She declares that our science system will never reach its full potential without Māori. We can agree with that last sentence.

    However, not everyone will agree that such a thing as colonial science exists at all and I am not yet aware of credible scientific frameworks that exist beyond the framework of colonial science. However, possibly her assertion of discrimination against Māori is true, but is not easy to prove and may in fact be quite wrong.

    It does not follow automatically that disparities in outcomes across diverse groups flow directly from bias or racism and that ‘common knowledge’, however impassioned it may be and however earnest its advocates, is often misguided. Joseph Stalin was fond of asserting “Everyone knows . . .”

    Thus, today, “everyone knows” that colonialism and systemic racism are the major and unquestioned causes of inequities today. But such ‘common knowledge’ is not necessarily true and often does not stack up against the objective scrutiny of research. From my own research I know that unequal outcomes in education and in health here in New Zealand have much to do with socioeconomics, rather than with systemic bias or racism. Low representation of Māori in the sciences may have much more to do with personal choice and ‘the pipeline’ than systemic bias. We need a study if we are to understand this issue properly.

    McAllister, Tara (2021). The underserving and under-representation of Māori scientists in New Zealand’s science system.

    David Lillis

    1. I’m sorry, but you can’t use my website as your website; that is, you can’t give a link and then a long quote from your own site. There is no value added to the comment by repeating what you said elsewhere. You can just give the link and say “see ___________”. I will let this long excerpt through, but please do not do it again. Thank you.

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